My name is Todd Fillingham. I design and build custom furniture in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m a father and husband. I sail and surf and play a little music once in while. Fillingham Art Furniture Design, my business is on the web here: www.fillingham.com.
I also make art, mostly sculpture, some painting, some drawing. This is the building my studio and wood shop is in, on the 5th floor.
This is as close an image of when and where I started out as I can find.
This is my mother painting an abstract vision of me as she was pregnant with me. (Don’t worry, I’m going to skip ahead very soon.) I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Eventually I ended up in Milwaukee, going to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM). Starting as a math major my education evolved into an interdisciplinary degree in independent film making. Three of us were the first to get a degree in film making from UWM. They now have a full department of film. We had to create our own program. I made documentary films, abstract films and something I called video sculptures. I also worked with a choreographer, Ellen Warsaw, to create a dance piece with live choreographed video projection that involved video manipulation and video time shifts as the piece progressed.
After we graduated Ellen and I traveled with dance costumes, film and slide projectors, camping gear, carpentry tools and a big shaggy collie all packed into 1968 VW van. We were itinerant artists and carpenter (no walruses, but there may have been some Jabberwocky along the line) that sought venues to present our work. Money was made by Ellen in teaching exercise classes and by me doing carpentry.
Milwaukee, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Key West (ah, Key west), Atlanta, Havre de Grace (don’t ask), Philadelphia, Burlington (VT) and finally back to Milwaukee turned out to be our itinerary. A relationship that could last through that adventure had to be really some relationship and ours almost did.
Back in the Midwest I found little opportunity to make a living at film making. I was also disappointed by the tenuous nature of the media of film and video, early video, 1/2 inch tape, real to real video. My video tapes suffered serious drop off and my 16mm film became worn and brittle. And I began looking around for other ways of being creative that might lead to some income.
A cabin along Lake Michigan became available just 15 miles north of Milwaukee. I was able to set up a small wood shop on the first floor and sleep on the second. I heated the place with wood, used an outhouse and had only one cold water tap. By that time I had joined a workers’ owned cooperative, Community Home Services, and was doing carpentry and remodeling along with a couple of friends, Steve and Jim, through the co-op. We used the shop to learn as we built custom cabinetry and some basic furniture for clients whose homes we remodeled. I commuted into the city. Jim and I also created a huge cooperative garden along with various friends, lovers and dogs. It was great having friends out on the weekends to work in the garden but then have the rest of the week to myself and my dogs. It was along the beach down from the cabin that I first started surfing Lake Michigan, albeit in a jury rigged kayak.
It was great until the winter. The three winters I was out there were some of the coldest in recent history, definitely the coldest in my history.
I met the woman I was to marry just before my fourth winter out there. Holly and I are still together after close to 30 years. I moved back to the city, opened a tad more legit shop (at least it wasn’t in my living room anymore), we bought a sailboat, we got married and I began seriously studying furniture making while also painting, doing a lot of drawing and beginning making sculpture (3D versus my earlier video sculptures).
Here I am with our gaff rigged yawl, Sojourner, tied up along side the KK River in Milwaukee. We sailed that boat up to Door County (about 200 miles) and lived on it for 2 weeks one summer. Eventually we sold it. I couldn’t keep up an old wooden boat and restore the fixer-upper we bought as a house to live in on Milwaukee’s east side. The boat had to go.
Soon we had our son, Joe. Being self-unemployed allowed me to spend quite a bit of time with Joe as he grew. Eventually Joe got us back into owning a sailboat, a circle that still makes me a little dizzy. That story may have to wait for now though. I want to get back to talking about woodworking and art.
I learned an amazing amount about woodworking owning and restoring a wood boat. Hanging around boat yards that have a lot of wood boats being worked on is a great education. Then being able to use what you’ve learned on your own boat really gets it into your bones.
As I learned more about woodworking and furniture I was able to apply what I learned in art history in designing period pieces and work that would fit with a variety of styles. I should mention a great friend of mine who has taught me so much over the years, especially in wood working and furniture. Dan Cramer has always supported my work and is an amazing person. Here’s his beautiful web site: Cramer Studio.
My goal in my woodworking, furniture design and furniture building has always been to satisfy the perceived need my customers have when they first approach me. To make it as easy as possible for my clients to have whatever kind of furniture they want. As a result I have taken on evermore challenging projects over the years. I have always been able to teach myself what I need to know to accomplish my goals and this ability has served me well as a furniture designer and maker. I have an extensive reference library in my studio that I refer to when I need to. I also keep copious notes about many aspects of design and woodworking and have filled many, many binders.
As I have witnessed the response I get from my clients to the work I’ve made for them I have begun to realize that I am adopting another goal in my work as well. A deeper, more meaningful goal. I find that I take great satisfaction when, upon delivery, my clients express real joy. There is something gained by having some part of our built environment built by hand by someone who cares about the work they do. Even if the work built by hand is just one piece it reminds us that there is a lot more to life. There’s caring, there’s art, there’s being human.
Recently I remade my website and asked a few clients if they would be kind enough to offer some comments about the work I did for them so that I could post them on my new site. If you’d like to read them they can be seen here: testimonials.